The last time Marine Sergeant Daniel Cornier saw his K9 partner Darko, the Belgian Malinois was sticking his nose through the bars of his kennel at Camp Pendleton, looking as devastated as Cornier felt. “It was horrible for both of us. He just knew,” says Cornier.
That was in late 2012, not long after they returned from a successful deployment supporting Army Special Forces in Afghanistan. Darko, a specialized search dog, had made a name for himself as a super high-drive dog whose biggest passion was seeking out explosives. It helped that he was obsessed with Kongs and loved getting praise from Cornier. During that deployment, Darko had 11 finds, and saved countless live.
As so often happens in the military dog world, shortly after they returned from deployment, their assignments didn’t dovetail. So Cornier shipped off to Yuma, Arizona, while Darko stuck around the kennels at Pendleton. He was well cared for, but wasn’t assigned to another handler.
Not a day went by when Cornier didn’t think of his best friend.
Darko’s original handler had wanted to adopt him, but when the time came for the Darko to be dispo’d, he was unable to take him. Next on the list was Cornier.
He got the phone call while he was vacationing in Florida a couple of weeks ago. Cornier, who recently adopted a military dog from Lackland Air Force Base when he thought he wouldn’t be getting Darko, was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to get back and help his best friend retire in style.
But would Darko, now 10, remember him? It had been some 18 months since they last saw each other, and Darko had gone on three deployments, but only one with Cornier.
On Sunday, he and his girlfriend drove from Yuma, Ariz., to San Diego. He felt like a kid at Christmas, and could barely contain his excitement about picking up Darko the next day. “I can’t believe he’ll be coming home with us. He’s waited a long time to become a civilian,” Cornier said.
Check out this video we put together from the footage he sent us of their happy reunion. Do you think Darko remembered?
Darko has adjusted beautifully to civilian life. He loves sleeping on beds and couches, has plenty of toys, and is getting along well with Rromano, Cornier’s other adopted military dog.
Here’s to a wonderful and long retirement! He sure deserves it!
If you’re interested in reading more about Darko’s phenomenal bomb-search abilities and his time in Afghanistan with Lucca, he’s in my next book, Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, which is available for pre-order.
There’s nothing like a reunion, especially with a military dog who saved your life – and the lives of many others – on numerous occasions during dangerous deployments. After too many months apart, you wonder if the dog will even recognize you, much less be happy to see you.
Last week, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, who is serving in Helsinki, Finland, had the reunion of a lifetime when his old military working dog, Lucca K458, stepped off a plane with her most recent handler, Marine Cpl. Juan Rodriguez. The 8-year-old Belgian Malinois was a little older, and missing one leg because of her last heroic act in war, but he’d have recognized her anywhere. Did Lucca recognize him? Read on in these dispatches Gunny Willingham sent us from Finland. (I got to know Gunny Willingham during my research into the tragic story of Cpl. Max Donahue’s for my book Soldier Dogs. He was his platoon sergeant, and thought the world of him.)
Dispatches to Soldier Dogs by Gunny Willingham
In 2006, I was paired with Specialized Search Dog Lucca. We served two tours in Iraq and we were extremely successful. Lucca was credited with numerous finds and the arrest of 5 insurgents. Kris Knight can tell you what a special dog Lucca is.
Upon returning from Afghanistan in December 2010, I received orders to Marine Security Guard School. I’m currently serving at the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. Before I left, I was able to select the handler to take over as Lucca’s handler. I selected Cpl. Rodriguez. We have the same personalities and I knew he would make a great team with Lucca. In November 2011, I headed to Helsinki, Finland and Cpl. Rodriguez, Lucca and the rest of my old platoon headed back to Afghanistan.
Lucca and Rodriguez were very successful during there deployment. The were in direct support of a Special Operations unit. On 23 March, while walking point on a patrol, Lucca responded to an IED. As they began to sweep for secondaries, a second device exploded. Lucca was injured but immediately started running back to Rodriguez. Rodriguez, ran and met her half way, quickly assessed the injuries and applied a tourniquet, which saved her life, then called in a MEDEVAC.
No member of the patrol was hurt. Lucca, again, was responsible for saving lives. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
She is currently at Camp Pendleton, where she recovered from the injury. Despite the amputation, Lucca can run around and is serving as the Kennel’s mascot. Most importantly, she has the same personality. She is amazing and her recovery was better than any one could have expected.
A couple weeks ago, she was cleared for retirement and I submitted my adoption package. Today, Rodriguez’s passport came in the mail. I am going to fly her and Rodriguez to Finland. Rodriguez will stay for 10 -12 days before returning to California. I thought it would be a great transition for Lucca and I wanted to personally thank Rodriguez for saving her life.
I’m trying to arrange a flight through American Airlines for the first week of July; Depart 3-5 July and return 16 July. The Embassy staff have been very supportive of my efforts to get Lucca over here. I’m trying to get her flown over here in the cabin since she is retired Explosive detection dog. I know it’s a long shot but i was wondering if you have an connections with American Airlines.
MG note: I searched around and made a couple of possible connections in the next few days, but he beat me to it.
I’m getting all the details on Monday but I think American Airlines is going to pay for the airfare for Lucca and Rodriguez. Rodriguez was also on my first deployment to Afghanistan, with Max Donahue. He had a Patrol Explosive Detection dog, RRolfe, the first deployment.
She should be here in the next week to ten days. I can’t wait.
This story took on a life of its own. Cpl. Rodriguez and Lucca arrived at Helsinki yesterday, Friday, at 0830. He was greeted by two camera crews in San Diego. When they arrived in Chicago for there layover, they held a brief ceremony with color guard and she received cheers from the people in the airport.
When she arrived in Helsinki, the Ambassador, some other key Embassy employees and I met Lucca at a private terminal. Basically, the plane landed and pulled up to gate 38 and only let Lucca and Rodriguez off and then off loaded everyone else at a different gate. Also, there were about 12 camera crews and journalist covering the story. One of the press members joked that Lucca received more press coverage than the recent visit of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Jill and the kids made four “welcome home” signs that we posted up in the terminal. American Airlines also had a couple swag bags for Lucca and Rodriuez along with a display of with pics of Lucca.
When they first entered the terminal, I knelt down and it was almost like you could see it process for her in slow motion when she approached me. It took a couple seconds to realize she was home. Lucca immediately started licking my face for about a solid minute. It brought back a lot of old memories seeing Lucca and Rodriguez.
About 2 weeks after I reported to Finland, my old platoon deployed. I kept in touch with a lot of the Marines and I would call Leatherneck every few weeks to check in with the Kennelmaster, SSgt Nuckles. On March 23rd, when Lucca was injured, I talked to Rodriguez about six hours after the incident. My first concern was to ensure Rodriguez was okay. We stayed in contact over the next week until Lucca and Rod returned to Camp Pendleton. She started doing really well during her rehab so, the next step was to discuss adoption. Rodriguez and I had a conversation about the adoption, and it was clear he wanted her to be reunited with me and my family. I worked with GySgt Green to submit the adoption paperwork.
3 1/2 months later, Lucca and Rodriguez arrived in Finland. Words cannot describe the feelings of being reunited with a Working Dog, who had saved my life numerous times. Also, I was also equally exciting and important to see Cpl Rodriguez. He also, knew what a special dog Lucca is. During a dismounted patrol on March 23rd, Lucca responded on an IED, it was here second IED to find during the patrol. Rodriguez began searching for secondaries, when a second device exploded. Wounded, Lucca began running back to the patrol. Rodriguez met her half way and applied a tourniquet with follow on first aid which saved Lucca’s life. She suffered burns to her neck and torso and her front left leg had to later be amputated.
A couple reporters followed us back to our house to capture the first few moments of Lucca being home. Lucca and Rodriguez both slept for about 4-5 hours. Around 1730, we went to the Marine house and hosted a BBQ. About 30 Embassy employees and their families came out to meet Lucca and Rodriguez. Also, we had Janis, who is the American Airlines representative, who made this whole trip possible, and two of the pilots who flew Lucca and Rod over. It was a great event and everyone was excited to meet Lucca and Rod.
Rodriguez will stay with me and my family for the next 12 days. Lucca will be sleeping in his room because I know
Lucca means a lot to Rod as well, and I want them to spend time together over the next couple weeks. Plus, I think it will serve as a good transition for Lucca to have both of us around for a couple weeks.
I will be the first to admit that dogs are “proven but not perfect.” In fact, I would often use that phrase in my capabilities and limitations brief to supporting units while deployed. However, every patrol that Lucca led during her three combat deployments, resulted in zero injuries. Even the patrol when Lucca was hurt, no other member of the patrol was injured.
Lucca was responsible for saving hundreds of lives and she was also directly responsible for the arrest of five insurgents. Again, it was hard to describe the feeling of being reunited with a couple of heroes in Lucca and Cpl. Rodriguez.
Animal Planet is putting together a new series that follows three military dog teams. It’s called Glory Hounds, and from the trailer, it looks like it really captures the essence of the military working dog world. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing it. /9I’ve heard it will air either in the fall or spring. I hope the fall! Will keep you posted.)
In the last couple of weeks we’ve lost some extraordinary military working dogs (not in war, though). A salute to the four-legged heroes: Lex, Rony, Bino, Mali, Bastar, and Nisan. RIP, you beautiful dogs. (I saw the name Dak posted as well, but can’t find any information on him. Can someone tell me if he is among the ones who recently died?)
Dog Heaven is surely bouncing with loads of Kongs this week, and maybe a bite sleeve or two.
This simple, short video by Semper Fi Canines is a powerful tribute to fallen canine heroes everywhere.
(I wrote this yesterday for my blog on Dogster.com and realized it belongs here as well.)
Remember back in 2007 when footage came out showing a North Carolina cop yanking and kicking the crap out of his Belgian Malinois patrol and narcotics detector dog? It was very disturbing to watch, although I’m sure much more disturbing to be the dog, Ricoh.
State Highway Patrol trooper Charles L. Jones was fired after public outcry. But a three-judge panel has just ruled that Jones should get his job back. Oh, and he should receive more than $200,000 in back pay. I’m embedding it at the bottom of this post, but don’t look if you are sensitive.
In case you don’t know the details of what Jones did, here’s a recap, via the Los Angeles Times. “The video shows Jones wrapping Ricoh’s leash over a railing, then yanking and raising the dog by its neck so that only its back feet touched the ground. Jones then kicked Ricoh five times, causing the dog’s legs to swing out from under it. Jones was disciplining the dog after it refused to release a piece of fire hose given as a reward for alerting officers to the presence of narcotics.”
Okay, I need to take a deep breath and count to 10. I’ve spent a good part of the last year devoted to the research and writing of my upcoming book (it’s being published in about a month!) on military working dogs, and have spoken with dozens of military dog handlers and trainers, and witnessed countless hours of intensive training. There is no way anyone I dealt with would condone this kind of treatment of a dog because he didn’t want to give up his “paycheck.” What Jones did to Ricoh — who had been his dog for six years before the incident — is nowhere on the scale of “okay” in the military. Here is what one highly respected military working dog trainer (whose name I’m not going to use because he’d rather not be known for armchair quarterbacking) told me of this “method.”
“Someone taught him how to correct the dog like this because it is methodical and you can tell he’s use this method before. Again, someone who clearly uses this method of compulsion release has taught this person a very OLD and unproductive method of correction.”
Sounds to me like the North Carolina K9 handlers could use some major upgrading of methods. It’s generally about carrots, not sticks, these days, and if this is standard fare for them, they need to make an investment in education. Actually, from what I hear, some smaller law-enforcement communities haven’t upgraded their training methodologies from decades ago. Hard to believe, but if the Jones incident is any indication, some major upgrading of techniques is called for.
As further evidence that this may have been protocol, Jones sued the state. Another state trooper backed him up, saying that dog handlers were trained to “use any means necessary to discipline” a dog to control him. Whoa, it’s not like this dog just ate a trooper’s face for lunch and got a swift punch or kick in the heat of the moment. The dog just didn’t want to give up his reward. There are plenty of other ways of dealing with this.
Incredibly, the panel of judges in the latest development were simply upholding earlier decisions by a state Superior Court judge, an administrative law judge, and a N.C. personnel commission. (It was the state’s then-governor Mike Easley who fired Jones in 2007.) The state Supreme Court may be asked to review the latest decision. But it looks like there’s a good chance Jones will really clean up. He has been working as a police officer in Apex, N.C., so he has been getting a paycheck. The extra $200,000 and getting his old job back could make him feel pretty invincible.
If I were a law-enforcement dog for the N.C. Highway Patrol, I’d start sending out my résumé right about now.